Guest Author Aminah Mae Safi: Ask Why, Not How
I’ve gotten a lot of questions, as people have begun reading my debut Not the Girls You're Looking For, about how to write complicated friendships, particularly complicated female friendships.
For a while, the only answer I could come up with was I just wrote them. A definitively unhelpful answer. So I thought about the question some more and came up with another, better-sounding answer: I wrote female friendships as I have known them.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a simple friendship with anyone, not that has lasted over the years. My friendships that have spanned decades have had to evolve and adapt as I and my friends evolved and adapted as individuals.
It was a good line. But it wasn’t actually a great answer to the question.
I was sitting here, honestly, wracking my brain (and, incidentally watching Murder, She Wrote on TV to distract myself from the fact that I had no answer to this question) when I realized why I was struggling. I don’t know how I write female friendships. But I know why I write female friendships.
Why do you write female friendships?
Because they have been integral to my own life. Because I know they have been formative to all of the women I have known. Because, even according to science, female friendships that last across lifetimes are important to women from a mental and physical heath perspective.
Why, not how.
That’s made all the difference in explaining what I’m doing. So instead of asking myself how, I’ve changed the questions to why, and I hope they help you as much as these questions have helped me explain what I’ve done in my writing.
Why do Lulu and her friends have such a complicated friendship?
Because they are complicated humans, full of their own hopes, dreams, desires, and fears. Because they are growing and sometimes you don’t always know yourself as you grow up. You’re changing and learning who you are, as well as who you might want to become. Because people are imperfect, and imperfect people have imperfect, and sometimes fraught relationships with one another.
Why do we sometimes dislike our friends, even as we love them?
I wanted Lulu and her friends to start in a place where the reader wondered why these girls are even friends. Why they were holding on to something that clearly wasn’t working. I wanted them to find a way to push through that—to find a new place that could work, to find a way to forgive one another, to find a way to seek forgiveness from one another. A person is never stagnant, never perfectly still in one place. Neither is a friendship. So I started in the moment of discord, the moment where things are going wrong, because, as a writer, things are always more interesting when they’re going wrong.
Why are we friends with the people we are friends with?
That’s the real question, isn’t it? For Lulu, it was a sense of loyalty. To her, to Lo, to Audrey, and to Emma—the core of their friendship was based around the belief that they were loyal to one another. It was, in many ways, a Slytherin glue that held their friendship together. But I would touch back into this central idea—Why are they friends to begin with?—whenever I got stuck while writing. The answer to this always helped me find my way out of tight plot corners, whether it was a moment they violated the terms of their friendship or a moment they adhered to their fierce sense of loyalty.
Why do we define ourselves against our friends?
There are many themes of sisterhood that pop up in Not The Girls You’re Looking For, but one of the places sisterhood and friendship cross over is this: where friends and sisters often decide their roles relative to one another. One person is the pretty one, another the quiet one, a third the wild one, and another the proper one. We all take up roles in our friendships and I wanted to explore the ways in which these can help bring us together with our friends at the same time as it holds us stagnant, holds us apart from them, keeps us from digging below the surface.
So this is where I leave you. I still don’t know how to write complicated friendships. How makes me think there is some magical formula that will work every time and I cannot guarantee that for anyone. I’m sorry. But I know why I write complicated friendships. I know why they’re important—to me, to my characters, to all of us in some way.
And maybe next time you’re stuck trying to figure out how to do something, ask yourself why instead. You just might be surprised with what you come up with.